Republic Airlines and the Teamsters union unlawfully deprived hundreds of Midwest Airlines flight attendants of their job seniority when the two airlines merged, a US appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Republic failed to honour the Midwest flight attendants’ seniority rights when it purchased the airline’s parent company, Midwest Air Group, in 2009.
Federal law, specifically the McCaskill-Bond Amendment to the Federal Aviation Act, requires airlines to integrate employee seniority lists when two carriers merge.
The Midwest flight attendants sued Republic and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 2010 under McCaskill-Bond, accusing the airline and its union of forcing hundreds of Midwest flight attendants into prolonged unemployment.
While Republic integrated the seniority lists for Midwest mechanics, baggage handlers and administrative employees, the company laid off the flight attendants, requiring them to apply for new jobs with Republic. If they were hired, they came on at the bottom of the seniority roster, according to the court opinion.
Republic and the Teamsters argued that the transaction was not a merger. Instead of acquiring an air carrier, Republic had rather acquired some assets related to air transportation, they argued. Soon after the purchase, Republic returned Midwest’s nine leased planes to Boeing and abandoned Midwest’s flying certificate from federal regulators. Republic did, however, take over Midwest’s air routes.
A district court ruled in favour of Republic and the Teamsters, concluding that the federal law was never meant to protect the employees of an air carrier that “simply goes out of business.” But the 7th Circuit disagreed.
“One cannot remove bankrupt and soon-to-disappear carriers from the statute’s coverage, as the Teamsters propose, without simultaneously circumventing the statutory text and frustrating the design behind it,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the three-judge panel.
The court noted that the federal law requiring seniority integration itself grew out of American Airlines’ acquisition of Trans World Airlines, which was bankrupt and on the brink of closing down.
Edward Gilmartin, general counsel for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and a lawyer for the Midwest flight attendants, said the 7th Circuit was the first appellate court to address the issue. The court “firmly established that once two carriers merge, there must be a fair and equitable seniority integration for the workers,” he said.
Most of the 400 Midwest flight attendants were laid off without pay, Gilmartin said. Some, with decades of experience, took jobs at Republic as new hires.